The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, unlike nearby Nepal, has kept a tight rein on tourism and development in order to preserve its traditionally rural, Buddhist culture and its forested mountain ecology. Logging is restricted and television banned. Government modernization efforts–such as encouraging separate barns for the farm animals that live on the first floor of most homes–have been aimed at poor sanitation and lack of medical care, both of which contribute to a life expectancy of only 50 years.
A matrilineal society, the Bhutanese pass land through daughters, and husbands move into their wives’ homes. Women are honored for weaving the traditional cloth that everyone must wear in public.
But the life of women like Nalim (the Bhutanese usually do not have family names) is unrelentingly hard. Now 49, she built the home that she shares with her disabled husband, Namgay, their five children, and their oldest daughter’s family. Nalim gave birth to two of her children alone–it was no problem at all, she says–and does much of the field work.
NALIM:In my village, the women’s work is to plant the rice paddy and harvest the wheat. Men plow the field and make it ready to plant. I’ve wanted to plow when there weren’t enough men, but I never have because I don’t know how. The men won’t teach me because they believe that if a woman starts plowing, the ox will start to cry and won’t work properly.
I hope my son and my daughter, who is in school, will leave the village and get work in an office. I was the only daughter, so my mother didn’t send me to school. Now I have to be out in the fields whether it’s sunny or rainy or very windy. I’d like to travel to other countries, but I don’t have the money or speak other languages.
Everything is fine for me here; I have a good family, we have trust and understanding among ourselves. But sometimes I wish that my mother had sent me to school, so I wouldn’t be having this hard life.